Ah the 1970’s, when Saturday afternoon meant one thing -wrestling. With the chants of “Easy, easy” and commentary by an over excited Kent Walton, this was British sport at its most showy.
Remember Giant Haystacks at 6’11” and 45 stone? Loved by millions of viewers and reaching the peak of his popularity in the mid-1970’s, Giant Haystack continued to wrestle until just before his death in 1998.
Haystacks was born Martin Ruane in Camberwell Green, London in 1946. His parents, who came from Co Mayo in Ireland, soon moved north to Salford in Manchester, which was to remain Ruane’s home. His mountainous size meant that he was tormented as a child but he soon learnt to defend himself.
He worked as a labourer, building motorways, and as a nightclub bouncer before a friend suggested he take up wrestling. Ruane, a private and religious man (he wouldn’t fight on Sundays), hated the public exposure and almost gave up after a few months – the 49-stone, 6ft 11in hulk was instantly tagged as the ‘monster of the mat’, the bruising brute cast opposite Big Daddy’s top-hatted hero. He persevered though and grew to love his ring persona. As Ruane said: ‘I felt like a conductor of the Halle Orchestra, able to play on people’s emotions, making them hate me or love me as I decreed. The showman in me was beginning to show.’
Ruane, who reputedly ate three pounds of bacon and a dozen eggs every morning to maintain his strength, flew all over the world as Giant Haystacks, wrestling as far afield as India and Zimbabwe, where he was made an honorary citizen. He also claimed Frank Sinatra was a loyal fan.
In the Eighties, as wrestling’s popularity waned, Ruane invested, unsuccessfully, in the motor trade and ran, more successfully, a debt-collection agency. In 1995 he signed a deal to fight against American wrestling star Hulk Hogan – an attempt to make a name for himself Stateside, where he was to be billed as the ‘Loch Ness Monster’. Soon afterwards he was diagnosed with cancer and the bout had to be called off. Ruane died of the disease in December 1998, aged 52. At the time he was writing a TV comedy about wrestling with former tag partner Tony ‘Banger’ Walsh.
Tony credited himself with the downfall of 70’s wrestling and on his website talks about himself in the third person:
I knew Tony ‘Banger’ Walsh was finished in the game, but I was not about to go quietly and leave through the back door. So following months of mind searching I contacted a journalist friend and together we contacted the Sun newspaper to expose all that was wrong with wrestling, the fixers, the ring rats, the injustice, the hypocrisy.
Within a few months, wrestling was taken off the television, to the chagrin of millions of fans. I obviously played my part in its downfall and for that I am truly sorry.
Aside from being a whistle blower, Banger also took part in various TV series such as “Gangsters”, “Send in the Girls”, “ Muck and Brass” and “Minder”. Other prominent 70’s wrestlers in the UK included; Jackie Pallo, Mick McManus, Les Kellett, Pat Roach, Kendo Nagasaki & Big Daddy -the nemesis of Giant Haystacks.
Big Daddy was born Shirley Crabtree – a character-building name he shared with his father, also a professional wrestler – in Halifax, West Yorkshire in 1930. Before he took up wrestling Shirley junior used his impressive physique working in the mines and playing rugby league for Bradford Northern. His hot temper (stoked by schoolmates who unwisely nicknamed him ‘Shirley Temple’) wasn’t suited to the game though. He was often sent off for violent conduct and never played for the first team.
Deciding life as a rugby-playing miner was not for him, Crabtree followed his father into the wrestling ring, grappling for years, without much success, as the ‘Blond Adonis’, ‘Mr Universe’ and the villainous ‘Battling Guardsman’ (he was briefly in the Coldstream Guards).
The Big Daddy persona which brought him fame from 1976 was inspired by Burl Ives’s character of the same name in the 1958 film of Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Crabtree’s wife Eunice made him an eye-catching leotard, emblazoned with a big ‘D’, out of their chintz sofa – by this time he weighed 26 stone and had a Guinness record-breaking 64-inch chest.
The crowd loved him. Playing the good guy, he came on stage to a fanfare and didn’t take long to demolish opponents with his famous belly ‘Splash’, to chants of ‘Easy!’ from the grannies and kids. Tragically, it was the splash which ended his career – in 1987 Big Daddy ‘splashed’ Mal ‘King Kong’ Kirk during a bout. Kirk groaned and turned blue. He was pronounced dead on arrival at hospital, although the coroner’s inquest cleared Crabtree, stressing that Kirk had a serious heart condition. Big Daddy retired soon after, blaming himself for the accident, and a golden era of wrestling came to an end. Crabtree died of a stroke three years ago, after a peaceful retirement in Halifax, at the age of 67.
Johnny Valentine was an American favourite. When he entered the NWF he took the federation by storm. He won the NWF World Title from Abdullah the Butcher and then proceeded to win the North American Title from Johnny Powers.
Johnny Valentine had classic feuds against the likes of Ernie Ladd and Johnny Powers in the NWF and fought some great matches against Bobo Brazil in Detroit. One member of the Fargo Brothers tag-team was, in fact, Johnny Valentine‘s son, Greg “the hammer” Valentine.
Johnny Valentine suffered a severe injury in a plane crash at the end of the 1970’s, ending his wrestling career. He died in 2001.
Another lovable fave was The Sheikh -the wildman from Syria. Enlisting fireballs, pencils and forks to attack opponents, the Sheikh was certainly resourceful. Every time he appeared in a studio or arena he would look up and be “startled” by the overhead lights, bringing his arms to his head to block out the alien lights. He never talked or did interviews.
Comedic now, but a frighteningly sadistic character at the time. The Sheik held the Detriot version of the United States Title a total of 12 times. This was due, no doubt, to the fact that he was the real-life promoter of the federation.
Bobo Brazil stood 6’4″ and 280 pounds and fought to a draw against Andre the Giant. Bobo is often remembered for a violent feud with the Sheik that lasted four decades. Bobo’s finisher was a deadly series of head butts (in Bobo’s case, it was called a coco butt).